Watching Like a Writer: Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction! Each Friday I will look at a classic film.
Summary: “Neal Page is an advertising executive who just wants to fly home to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his family. But all Neal Page gets is misery. Misery named Del Griffith — a loud mouthed, but nevertheless lovable, salesman who leads Neal on a cross-country, wild goose chase that keeps Neal from tasting his turkey.” (via Amazon)
Review: Twenty minutes. That’s how long it took me into Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, written and directed by John Hughes, to know it was something special. The best comedies are funny, yes, but they also have a lot of heart, and there is no shortage of either in this film. This film touches me every time I watch it, and most of the credit goes to the strong writing and the superlative performances by Steve Martin and John Candy. Like John Carpenter’s Halloween, this film is seasonal, given that the movie revolves around Thanksgiving, a holiday not typically the backdrop in films. It’s not only the best Thanksgiving movie ever made. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
Barely a moment passes in this film before director Hughes tries for another gag. The difference between a comedy like this and many others, however, is almost every laugh comes out of realistic situations. Aside from a sequence on the highway involving Del driving a rental car, almost everything in this movie seems like it could happen. And that makes us identify more with the characters and situations, as we put ourselves inside these guys’ shoes without hesitation. The movie’s also funny because the stakes are high. We know that Neal needs to get home to his family by Thursday night, and as each day turns to night and each night turns to day, he gets closer and closer to missing Thanksgiving dinner with the family. Whether it be the airplane being re-routed or the train crashing to a halt or the rental car catching on fire, every moment we are hoping that Neal finds his way home.
The movie works in many ways, as a holiday comedy, as a road flick, but most importantly, as a terrific buddy movie. Most buddy movies are cliched and cloying, with two actors who have little to no chemistry. Chemistry is one of those things: it either happens or it doesn’t. And something truly magical happens in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Paired together, and playing well-observed, three-dimensional characters, Martin and Candy are sensational.
Martin has had an amazing career that spans four decades. Some of my favorites include The Jerk, All of Me, Little Shop of Horrors, Father of the Bride 1 and 2, and Bowfinger. He is a natural comedian, hilarious even in marginal entertainment, and I will always be a fan. For me, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is his finest hour. Here he plays a normal guy just trying to get home for Thanksgiving, and despite all his efforts, he can’t escape somebody he takes an instant dislike to. Martin plays Neal Page as kind of a loner, one who doesn’t like to make chit-chat with others. We’ve all be there. We’re on the flight home, we have somebody wanting to talk to us on the plane, and we just want that person to shut up and focus on someone or something else. Neal doesn’t want Del to be a part of his life, but he just can’t get rid of him, and the joy of Martin’s performance is to see him transform from a lugubrious tight ass to a helpful friend.
My love for Martin has never faltered, but my love for Candy basically begins and ends with this film. I don’t know if Candy just couldn’t find good projects, but, for me, this is his one superb and genuinely moving performance. He can be really funny for minutes on end, like in a scene where he’s driving the rental car and Neal is sleeping soundly beside him. As Del drives the car, he starts lip syncing to a Ray Charles song “Mess Around” and has trouble keeping the car on the road. This moment is at least two minutes of Candy just having fun, and it’s wonderful. The most affecting scene has to be when Neal sits outside in the car, in the cold, his coat pressed up against his face. He talks to himself, as if he were talking to his wife, telling her how disappointed she must be and how much he misses her. This is a sad scene on first viewing. It’s an absolutely heart-breaking scene on second viewing. When Neal finds out a secret in the end, and we find Del at the train station, I tear up every time. Why is this scene more affecting than other sad scenes in dramatic movies? Because Del Griffith is a fully realized character, brought to life beautifully by the late John Candy.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a classic comedy, one of the very best. I wouldn’t consider John Hughes to be one of my favorite directors necessarily, but he has not one, not two, but three films on my list of favorite movies of all time: The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. While some of his films stay locked inside a stuffy library, and others feature sights of glorious Chicago, his comedic timing, terrific pace, good ear for dialogue, and affection for his characters never falter. With these three films, he created a cinematic legacy, and he proved that good comedy is hard, and great comedy is rare. If I had to pick a favorite of the three, it would be Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. This is a movie that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Watching Like a Writer: What makes Planes, Trains & Automobiles stand out from other comedies is the dramatic twist at the end that reveals a heartbreaking reality about Del. This got me thinking about how serious revelations can work in a piece of comedic writing that’s ultimately meant to make readers laugh. How dark can you go at the end of a humorous story? There’s a delicate balance to be had.
Exercise! What is one pro and one con to incorporating serious drama at the end of a comedic piece of writing? Comment below, and in the Facebook group, Watching Like a Writer!